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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Transgenic Crops, Organic Farmers and the Real Issues...

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) advocates will argue persistently that anyone who is against allowing GMOs into natural ecosystems is simply uneducated as to “the science” behind genetic engineering. The truth is there are thousands of well-educated, organic farmers out there fighting against Genetic Modification (GM) for legitimate reasons. Unfortunately, allowing GMOs out into the world has already put their organic crops at risk.

What’s “The Science” Behind GMO’s? 

For a long time now, I’ve been lost trying to chase down exactly what goes on in the process of GM. I was so determined to not be one of the people that Biotech calls ‘uneducated about the science.’ Then it dawned on me, this is a dragon I’m chasing. It’s a reductionist, biotech dragon. Knowing how or not knowing how doesn’t affect my choices, my ethics or the fact that your business is taking those away from me and millions of other people. To tell people that you are taking DNA from one species and plugging into another and then claim that their ethical objections are misinformed because they don’t understand “how” you’re doing this…that is a smokescreen. Suddenly I am reminded of “Tiny Classified Ads…It’s Complex.”

The Process

I was able to uncover a basic understanding of what the process actually is. First of all, this isn’t your momma’s laboratory. Sterile equipment, pipets, centrifuges, microscopes, test tubes, DNA samples ect. It’s a far cry from a green field or even a greenhouse just to give you a visual.

There are multiple types of genetic modifications that can be done on a given crop. Insect resistance (for example: BT), herbicide resistance (Roundup Ready), nutrient production (Golden Rice) ect. If you have eaten any non-organic: corn, soy, canola, wheat, products in the last ten years than you’ve eaten genetically modified food. Keep in mind that corn is in everything: high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, mono-di or triglycerides, lecithin, citric acid can all be derived from corn (Michael Pollan- Omnivores Dillema). If you’ve had any meat from a non-local butcher than its likely been fed a diet of pure GMO corn. It’s scary how quickly this new supposed ‘silver bullet’ penetrated the world food supply. 

It begins with Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacteria that infects plants. Normally this bacteria would cause tumors to grow on the plant roots, but scientists clean out the bacteria cell and insert a cloned sequent of DNA of their choosing. For instance, they might insert a DNA sequence that tells the plant to produce the toxin BT, another bacterium which kills insect larvae. 

They expose the plant to this gene-impregnated bacteria, which then attaches to the plant DNA and begins to produce the substance of choice, such as the BT toxin. Another way they do this is the gene gun. This is basically a Crosman air pistol which shoots transgenic material wrapped around particles of heavy metal into the plant cells. The heavy metal is strong enough to penetrate cell membranes and the DNA detaches from the metal and is incorporated into the plant DNA. These methods are extremely imprecise and regardless which is used, the organism then produces the substance (BT) within each cell

With these processes, bioengineers can plug any DNA sequence from any organism into another organism. They can access full “scientific creativity” without heeding the barriers between species that Nature has set up over millennia of evolution; as if it were their right. With this flawed science it is possible that we could undo those millennia of evolution in a matter of decades. They don’t stop with just doing it; they are also intent on selling it. They make claims of humanitarianism as if they’re going to ‘save the world’ while simultaneously spending millions lobbying to keep GMO products from being labeled. If it’s going to save the world, it’s not dangerous and there’s nothing to hide, why don’t you want people to be able to choose whether or not they want to eat it?

GMO Germplasm

To go on using BT as an example, when plants are engineered to produce it, the transgenes located within the plant DNA do not recognize tissue differentiation. So, every single cell within that plant is pumping out BT whether it’s the root, the leaf or the seed. While we could spray the BT toxin on our crops all we want, we would never see the toxin within pollen cells. We do see BT in the pollen of transgenic crops. This means that transgenics can cross-pollinate with other crops growing miles away…essentially contaminating organic fields and destroying that wild, locally grown variety. Once transgenes are out there in open pollination, then there will be no going back…ever. When Michael Neff, a WSU biotechnology professor and GMO advocate was asked at the symposium what should be done about this potential risk his answer was essentially this: Well, I know you’re not going to like hearing it but I think the only way organic farmers will stay in business is to accept GMO crops onto their farms. Of course this comment was met with resentful murmurs throughout a room of organic farmers. Where is the line being drawn between protecting scientific creativity and destroying the freedom to choose for oneself?

Despite their humanitarian claims, they reveal their true interests when they destroy small farmers whose crops got contaminated by transgenics, when they go after universities for conducting experiments of their own on transgenic crops and when they manipulate and patent Nature’s bounty as their own ‘intellectual property.’

The Ethical Debate

We cannot use reductionist science to devalue items such as plants or seeds to an almost in-organic low. During the rise of capitalism, colonialism and the prevalence of cheap oil, our attitudes toward Mother Nature became domineering. People looked at Nature’s regenerative cycles as “obstacles.” Reduction science breaks things down into fragmented, substitutable parts and claims that an understanding of the parts is the same as an understanding of the whole. Under this belief system, industrial ‘band-aids’ such as artificial Nitrogen fertilizer made from petroleum or pesticide made from WWII Nazi gas chamber gas are justified and praised as ‘elite’ compared to Nature’s primitive interconnectedness. They completely ignore the fact that killing the soil is setting off a giant chain reaction which will lead to the destruction of their own species.

The seed is Nature’s feminine gift of abundant life to us and all the beings that make up this one organism: Earth. A belief system that devalues the production of nature and values commoditization also devalues women and their contributions to societies. According to Vandana Shiva, 
"The marginalization of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand. Loss of diversity is the price paid in the patriarchal model of progress which pushes inexorably towards monoculture, uniformity and homogeneity." Ecofeminism page 166.

Women, being viewed as the 'second sex', have an innate link with diversity and differences. The struggle for social equality and the ecological struggle to protect biodiversity is essentially the same; a struggle against the hierarchies and mono-cultures of capitalism. Women do such a variety of work that it is immeasurable, and labeled by patriarchal economists as 'outside the so-called production boundary.' This is interpreted as non-productive. In the same way, a bio-diverse food forest is viewed as not as productive because it doesn't produce as much corn as a monoculture. But, in calorie and nutrient content...the food forest produces much larger quantities, its just not all's also tubers, beans and fruits and greens and animals products ect.

Under the laws of capitalism, anything that reproduces on its own without paying tax to the big guys is a threat. In a culture that uses the metaphors of ‘machines’ to describe the totally organic and sacred processes of Nature; also uses these metaphors when speaking of human reproduction and in doing that distances women from their own ‘expertise’ regarding their bodies. This is what ecofeminism tries to address: a type of consciousness that disconnects us from an integrated whole understanding of life and our place in it. It empowers the few who control it and depraves the rest of us of information.
Genetic Modification reduces Nature’s whole to substitutable parts without regard for the true consequences. Biotech companies completely ignore millions of people’s ethical and spiritual objections under reductionist justifications thereby devaluing those people, women and Nature.

Why are we facing global famine? Are we?

Well, fossil fuel -> Industry -> Industrial agriculture -> monoculture -> pest population rises because of abundance of favorite food -> pesticide warfare on nature -> pesticides poison ecosystems -> humans destroy habitat for livestock production -> erosion and chemical input depletes global soil ->…it’s all connected to this chain of events. 

According to Ethical Issues in Biotechnology; By Richard Sherlock, John D. Morrey,

“There is no relationship between the prevalence of hunger in a given country and its population. For every densely populated and hungry nation like Bangladesh or Haiti, there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation like Brazil or Indonesia. The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough food is available to provide 4.3 pounds for each person every day: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs and another of fruit and vegetables. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access to food and land.” (page 10)

The problems that large agrotech companies claim GMO’s will solve were created by those very same agrotech companies…it’s a system that was designed to do nothing but produce as much as fast as possible, there is no regard for ecological welfare. 

Permaculture, polyculture, synergistic and holistic farm management practices, bioactive farming and other versions what I call “true ecosciences” have proven themselves in recent years to be as productive or even more so than conventional agriculture.
They incorporate a harmonious balance of ever diversifying species to produce a variety of nutrient sources. These holistic systems are simple and do-able. They do not require the farmer to import oil or chemicals but instead encourage a harmonious relationship with the farmland and soil. They are teachable to all people, so that even the poorest or most isolated can be food secure. They do not make mass profits, they do not centralize control over a global food supply.

Here is Bill Moyers talking with Vandana Shiva on Genetically Modified Seeds:

Scientific American: Can Genetically Modified Crops Feed the World? Genetic modification has been touted as a solution to hunger, but does it really boost yields?; David Biello.

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Genetic Engineering of Crop Plants

Genetically Engineering Plants for Crop Improvement: CHARLES S. GASSER AND ROBERT T. FRALEY

Journal of Biological Education: Volume 27, Issue 4, 1993: Biotechnology and genetic engineering: students' knowledge and attitudes

Agriculture and Human Values: March 1998, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 15-30: The influence of initial attitudes on responses to communication about genetic engineering in food production

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